Defense Department Readies 100,000 Body Bags as Virus Death Toll Rises

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Drivers line up at the entrance of a coronavirus test center.
Drivers line up at the entrance of a coronavirus test center in Upper Dublin Township on March 20, 2020. (U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Airman Wil Acosta)

The Defense Department confirmed Thursday that 100,000 body bags are being readied for shipment in response to a grim request to help states with burials as the death toll from the novel coronavirus escalates.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's request for Human Remains Pouches, first reported by Bloomberg News, followed White House statements earlier this week that backed projections of a U.S. pandemic death toll ranging from 100,000 to 240,000.

As a result, the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) "is currently responding to FEMA's prudent planning efforts for 100,000 pouches to address mortuary contingencies on behalf of state health agencies," Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

He said the request is being handled under "a longstanding arrangement with FEMA to procure key commodities from DLA's industrial partners during crisis response operations."

Related: The Latest on the Military's COVID-19 Response

The preparations to use 94-by-38-inch military body bags, typically sent to war zones for combat casualties, come as the death toll in the U.S. from COVID-19 rose to 5,151 as of midday Thursday, with a total of 217,263 confirmed cases nationwide, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The need for burial assistance is becoming more and more evident in New York City, where the death toll was 1,374 as of midday Thursday, the center said.

At Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens and other sites in the five boroughs, refrigerated trucks are parked outside to temporarily store the remains of victims of the pandemic.

At a March 24 Pentagon briefing, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, gave the first signals that the DoD would eventually be called upon for burial assistance in the crisis.

"I do know there are some states considering" using the unique capability of the National Guard's Fatality Support and Recovery Teams to assist with burials, possibly to prevent spread of the virus, he said.

"I've been told some states have started to look at the potential" for using the teams, should the necessity arise, Lengyel said. He did not name the states.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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